Hindered by tight weekly international passenger arrival caps, no-one really knows how many Aussies are trying to get home by Christmas. But according to The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (BARA), an industry body representing international airlines flying into Australia, well over 10,000 Australians will remain stranded overseas over the Christmas New Year period.
“The number of Australians overseas seeking to return home before the end of 2020 but now without an option to do so far exceeds the immediate waiting list of at least 10,000,” Barry Abrams, Executive Director of BARA said in a statement on Wednesday.
“This is because to meet the tight international passenger arrival caps, which were implemented with very short notice, many international airlines were forced to stop selling tickets some months ago.
“This means that the estimated immediate waiting list of 10,000 Australians overseas after airlines have booked flights to the permitted caps, does not include those who have been unable to book a ticket or join a waiting list.”
Tight limits on the number of arriving passengers keeps citizens out of their own country
Since mid-year, Australia has only been accepting around 6,000 inbound international passengers per week. This sees flights coming in with as few as 30 passengers allowed onboard and cries of price gouging as those airlines elect to sell pricy premium seats over cheaper economy class seats.
The Australian Government recently lifted the weekly arrivals cap by around 2,000 passengers. There is a compulsory 14-day quarantine in a government-mandated facility in place. The arrivals cap is an attempt to keep COVID-19 at bay. Further, no-one wants to overwhelm government agencies tasked with running the quarantine and health operations.
It’s a stance that’s won broad support. But the casualties have been substantial numbers of Australian citizens caught overseas. They’ve been effectively prevented from returning to their own country because they can’t snag one of the available entry spots.
It’s also bad news for the airlines who are continuing services in Australia. Allowed to sell so few seats, most of the carriers focus on selling premium-priced tickets. This allows them to recoup as much money as possible on the long flight to Australia.
Qantas plans to lay on more repatriation flights
National carrier Qantas has largely vacated the market, flying very few international flights since late March. But it has operated some government underwritten repatriation flights over the last two months on a cost-recovery basis.
“As the national carrier, this is something we are proud to do,” said CEO Alan Joyce in October.
These flights were due to wrap up shortly. But in an interview earlier this week, Mr Joyce indicated the repatriation flights would continue into the New Year.
We’re working with the government on a lot more of those flights occurring,” Mr Joyce told ABC’s Radio National Breakfast on Monday.
“We’ve got more before Christmas, more passing into the New Year as well.”
Airline industry calls more a more nuanced approach to quarantine
That’s undoubtedly welcome news for stranded Australians. Mr Joyce, BARA, and a host of aviation insiders want a more nuanced risk-based approach to international arrivals rather than the flat 14-day quarantine period.
Through a combination of testing and looking at where you’ve flown in from, quarantine periods could be shortened. Alan Joyce won’t say by how long exactly but less than a week isn’t out of the question.
That would free up capacity in quarantine facilities, meaning airlines could bring in more people more frequently and get more stranded Australians home. BARA’s Barry Abrams says airlines are just pawns in the bigger game. He says the decision ultimately rests with the various State Governments in Australia who manage the health systems.
“The decision as to whether more Australians can return home before 31 December now ultimately rests with the individual state governments, who must decide if international arrivals can use the freed-up domestic quarantine capacity.
“For their part, international airlines are already providing more than enough flights and seats to return these Australians home,”